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Monday, January 17, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Over the last few weeks, several of the regulars here at the Friday Challenge, the Troika included, have written columns on why we write. A common theme through those columns was the desire, the need, to convey emotions to readers. It's certainly a desire you'll find in most writers. Given that, it seems like it would be a good idea to actually discuss conveying emotions successfully. I'm going to use popular movies for most of my examples simply because I suspect more of you will have seen the movies than will have read certain books.

There are a lot of emotions a writer can convey. Even a brief list of them could go on and on; humor, horror, excitement, drama, sadness, and happiness are among the most common. In this column I'm going to look at what I consider two of the truly easy emotions to convey -- drama and sadness, which tends to flow fairly naturally from drama.

Why do I consider those two emotions so easy to convey? They're easy to convey because they're easy to evoke. Imagine: The stream behind the house has swollen to raging torrent due to heavy rain. Little Johnny is missing. His older brother, Bill, was supposed to be watching him. But Bill let himself get caught up in a game of tag with his friends and took his eyes off of Little Johnny for just a minute. In that minute, Johnny ran around to the back of the house and hasn't been seen again. Johnny's footprints were found next to the stream. Did Johnny fall in the raging stream and get swept away? Has he drowned, stuck in a culvert, or is he even now hanging onto a tree root for dear life, hoping his big brother will save him.

A child is in danger. Bang. Instant drama. It may be stereotypical drama, but it works. One need only look at the news coverage whenever a young child falls in a well or simply goes missing to realize just how well it can work. And if you want the drama to change to sadness, you have Little Johnny end up dead, drowned in the swollen, raging stream. If you want more drama, have him found alive but unconscious. You build more drama in the hospital as the family hopes and prays that the boy recovers. If you want happiness, the boy is found alive or eventually wakes up in the hospital.

These are primal emotions, here. Emotions which will affect all but the hardest of the hard-hearted readers. Well, and other writers. Writers will look not just at the emotions you attempt to evoke, they'll look at the effect the emotions had on the characters in your story. Regardless of what happens to Little Johnny, if his brother Bill isn't changed by the experience then the emotions are just cheap theater. The writer will have used them to try to make the readers care about the story, but will have shown his own lack of interest by simply ignoring the effects those emotions would have on real people.

Here are a couple of examples from movies.

In Independence Day, the president has a wife and a child. The child is with the president, so is in the same danger as her father. The first lady is in Los Angeles and is only seen briefly prior to the aliens' attack. Anyone who's seen the movie knows that Will Smith's girlfriend finds the wounded first lady and both are brought to Area 51 when Will Smith steals a helicopter and goes to get his girlfriend. Once under actual medical care, the first lady dies. It's all very sad. But what difference does it make to the story?

None at all. The president is already filled with resolve to fight back against the aliens. He doesn't change his plans or modify his behavior. The first lady wasn't even used as an excuse to allow Will Smith to go rescue his girlfriend or a reason why he wasn't grounded (at the very least) when he returned with the stolen helicopter. It's all fake emotion. No one is changed. The story isn't affected. It seems likely to me that the first lady was included in the story simply so she could die and make us all sad for a minute or two before the movie got on with kicking the aliens' butts.

The 2009 Star Trek movie opens with a lot of action surrounding a subplot of the birth of James T. Kirk. Kirk's father sacrifices himself to ensure his crew and family get the time they need to get away. The movie could just as easily have allowed Kirk's father to escape at the last second, been hailed as a hero, and given James Kirk all the example necessary for him to join Starfleet and become the great man he was in the original TV series and the subsequent movies. So, was the elder Kirk's sacrifice just an emotional ploy to make us feel sad?

I say no. Without a father to guide him, Kirk becomes a rule breaker, if not an outright criminal. One of those kids who had all sorts of potential but was busy wasting it on silly stunts such as stealing his uncle's Corvette or getting into a bar fight with a bunch of Starfleet recruits. Pike may have appealed to Kirk's personal pride when he challenged him to do half as well as his father had when getting him to join Starfleet, but that didn't change Kirk's personality. In the end, saving earth and all of its citizens took someone willing to break the rules and use his gut instincts. Starfleet gave Kirk a useful way to channel his rebellious streak, but Starfleet needed the rebel just as much as the rebel needed Starfleet. The movie conveyed sadness at the death of Kirk's father, but the scene was vital to development of the main character.

This is the challenge all writers face when conveying emotions. The emotion must have some effect on the characters and the story, else why include the scene? If all of you reading this are saying, "Duh! That's pretty obvious, Henry." then we here at the Friday Challenge have been doing something right. But I see this simple rule violated often enough that I thought it would bear stating outright.

Primal emotions are easy to invoke but they come with a cost. As long as your characters pay the price for their emotions, you'll have one less thing to worry about in your writing.
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